Woody and the Jets

Woody Johnson and Mark SanchezPhoto: Sarah A. Friedman (Johnson); Tim Mantoani (Sanchez)

‘I hate the Jets,” says Tom Brady. This makes Woody Johnson smile.

No one—let alone Brady, the dimple-chinned, model-marrying, Super Bowl–ring–collecting, Bieber-haircut-wearing quarterback, raised under the New England Patriots’ strict policy of omertà—has bothered to publicly hate the New York Jets in quite some time. You don’t hate teams that are middling, mediocre, inconsequential. Traditionally, the people most likely to publicly hate the New York Jets are long-suffering New York Jets fans.

This year, though, everyone hates the Jets. Or loves the Jets. People can’t stop talking about the Jets. Sports-radio hosts ask Brady if he’s watching Hard Knocks, the reality show on HBO about the Jets’ training camp. (He hasn’t, because he hates the Jets.) Priggish TV hosts chastise Jets coach Rex Ryan for his bountiful profanity, showcased in all its glorious ingenuity on that program. In the NFL, it’s taboo to boast, or make brash predictions, or trash-talk, at least publicly. And yet, here’s an excerpt from Ryan’s preseason pep talk, delivered not only to the team but to the whole world via HBO, and already a YouTube hit: “If we play at our best, we will beat every team in this fucking league playing at their best … We know we’re better than you. We don’t give a fuck if you know it or not. We don’t give a shit if you give us your best game. We’re going to give you our best game. And we’re going to beat the fuck out of you. How’s that?”

Yes, all of this makes Woody Johnson very happy, though he’s not particularly effusive, nor foulmouthed, himself. At 63, he’s trim, assiduously fit, and wears black rectangular glasses along with, on this late August day, a white Dri-Fit athletic top, white athletic socks, white running shoes, and a white Jets cap tugged over his bald head. He sits with his legs crossed at the ankle in a bare room at the team’s training camp in upstate New York. It’s pack-up day; the team is heading back to its luxury facility in New Jersey. Johnson leans back in his chair.

“We know who we are. We’re poised to go,” he says. “We’re ground-and-pound football. Northeast football. Outside, all-weather. We love running the ball.” These words, this jargon—ground-and-pound, Northeast football—seem to feel good in his mouth, good to say out loud, natural even for a guy who was born Robert Wood Johnson IV, heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune. In this room, he has the fearless air of a man with a giant bodyguard standing behind him. Or in this case, a giant mouth. “As Rex says,” he continues, “we’re not going to be a team that other teams want to see. We’re up front about it. People are talking about it. They’re saying we talk too much, we do this, we do that. Fine. Whatever. Good.”

He likes this team. He likes being the owner of this team.

“Let ’em talk about us,” he says.

Cortland, New York, is about 30 miles due south of Syracuse, and in August it converts into a two-mile-long Jets souvenir store. Green-and-white jerseys, helmets, and T-shirts hang in nearly every shop and bar window, and in one gift store you can buy a Jets version of Monopoly featuring Joe Namath on the box. The game, a few years out of date, also features Chad Pennington, a recent and much less celebrated Jets quarterback. This pairing, Broadway Joe with a guy named Chad, neatly summarizes the narrative arc of the franchise: a glorious burst of glamour way back in 1969, followed by 40 years spent almost entirely sizzle-free.

This year, though, is all about the sizzle. In 2009, the Jets followed an uneven season—they finished 9-7 and barely ducked into the playoffs—with a rousing, improbable finish: two straight upset wins in the playoffs that left them just one victory short of the Super Bowl. As a result, few people remember last year’s Jets as a wobbly team that stumbled backward into the postseason; everyone remembers them as the gutsy squad that nearly shocked the world. And this preseason, everyone, from analysts to fans to the New York Jets themselves, expect the team to go even further—which can only mean, for this team, winning the Super Bowl.

The Jets hold the first weeks of their preseason camp at the SUNY-Cortland campus, and the crash of pads and the grunts of men are audible as you approach the field, where the players are doing what most of them have been doing every year since they were 10 years old: running drills, lobbing footballs, smashing headlong into tackling dummies. In the heat, in full uniform, they look oddly top-heavy, their wide centurion shoulders balanced over spindly, knickered legs. Nearby, a young curly-haired dude in a ball cap lugs some equipment to an SUV, looking for all the world like a rock-and-roll roadie save for the athletic leggings peeking out from under his baggy cargo shorts. Someone leans over and whispers, “That’s Mark Sanchez,” the team’s $28 million quarterback, who last year as a rookie led the team in touchdown passes (12), interceptions (20), and GQ-photo-shoots-in-a-swimsuit-on-the-beach-with- a-model-he-ended-up-dating (1).

For Jets fans, this season is Super Bowl or bust.Photo: Tom Berg/Icon SMI/Newscom

A swarm of HBO cameramen weaves between the players, gathering footage for Hard Knocks. Johnson’s been watching the show closely. “I plan my whole evening around it,” he says. When the producers started looking for a team to cover in 2010, the Jets were an obvious candidate and more than happy to take part. “We knew we had a home run with the Jets and Rex Ryan,” says Ross Greenburg, the program’s executive producer. “Just being around the organization, seeing the way the culture presents itself, and the willingness of the players to participate, we recognized this would be special. And it’s been a huge success by any reasonable standard.”

It’s all part of the 2010 Jets show. The Jets have something to sell. They have an exciting team and a brand-new stadium, with expensive Personal Seat Licenses for season-ticket holders. So the Jets are striving to make the world forget the Same Old Jets and introduce them to the Brand New Jets—what we might better call the Bad News Jets.

Because if you ever wanted to cast a feel-good sports movie about a charmed crew of lovable misfits, malcontents, young guns, and aged vets, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the 2010 Jets. There are the marquee players you likely already know, like Sanchez, or All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis, who’s arguably the NFL’s best defender and inarguably the Jets’ best player. He takes his coverage job so seriously that he mirrors the movements of the other team’s receiver not only on the field but also while he’s on the sideline, a state of concentrated isolation he calls putting someone on “Revis Island.” Unfortunately, for much of camp the role of Revis was played by understudies: Revis himself was holding out for a new contract, and his absence became the main story line of Hard Knocks. Then, on Labor Day, Revis finally agreed to a new deal, which was joyful news to the Jets faithful and, no doubt, the producers of Hard Knocks. Their final episode aired the following Wednesday, and, as is fitting for these storybook Jets, the Revis signing gave them a perfect ending.

There’s no shortage of compelling subplots, either, from LaDainian Tomlinson, a fading future Hall of Fame running back signed to New York for one last run at a ring, to Antonio Cromartie, an expert cornerback shipped in from San Diego, who arrives with his own baggage. For starters, at age 26, he has eight children by six different women. Four of those kids are, or will turn, 3 years old this year. In his locker there’s a card that says “We love you Daddy!” and features no fewer than sixteen photos on it.

And then there’s Ryan. The garrulous, scurrilous, irresistible coach has, thanks to Hard Knocks, become a reality-show rock star. If you have been watching that show and you are not entranced with him, you are either stonehearted or brain dead. He laughs and swears and prowls the sidelines, shouting zingers like (about a blossoming player) “We’re seeing his nuts drop before our very eyes!” or (about an underachiever) “You couldn’t play dead in a B-movie Western.” Disappointed by his team’s preseason effort, he rages, “Let’s make sure we play like the fucking New York Jets and not some fucking slap-dick team,” then ends the upbraiding with the highly quotable rallying cry: “Let’s go and eat a goddamn snack.”

“There’s never been anything like this,” says Woody Johnson, soaking in all the buzz. Of course, he helped engineer it, in part by putting it all on TV. Now he’s like a proud producer watching his show hit No. 1 in the ratings. “If you wear a Jets hat in California, you will be stopped, guaranteed,” he says. “They’ll ask you about Sanchez. A friend of mine was over in Europe wearing a Jets hat, and he got mobbed. People like the cast of interesting characters around the team. Everyone wants to know about the Jets.” Johnson has put together a compelling attraction. Now he just has to hope the Jets show, like Hard Knocks, has an uplifting finale.

When Woody Johnson bought the Jets back in 2000, he was so press-averse that his name was habitually preceded by the adjective “reclusive.” “Enigmatic” and “mystery man” also came up. He shunned interviews and stymied reporters who approached his friends and associates. “It takes a while to decide exactly what your relationship to the press is going to be, how open you want to be,” he says now. “So I tried being closed. I tried to keep everything secret.” In his life, he was accustomed to a certain kind of notoriety, which came with his famous name, but he’d never been in the spotlight. Owning a sports team—let alone a New York–based NFL team—is, he says, “like politics. Everybody knows what you’re doing all the time. Everybody has opinions. And they’re all willing to share.”

A preseason win over the Eagles.Photo: Brian Garfinkel/AP Photo

According to many of Johnson’s famous friends, he’s long been a private wild man. Jann Wenner might tell you about the time they took a cross-country motorcycle trip with a bunch of dudes (including Michael Douglas), from the Tavern on the Green to the Golden Gate Bridge, and Johnson wore a helmet with fake black hair streaming out the back. Or Mitt Romney might relate the story of how Johnson visited his estate and, when no one else would test a rope-swing into a swimming hole, grabbed the rope and hurtled himself into the drink. One of Johnson’s better-known idiosyncrasies is his habit of zipping around New York on a three-wheeled push-scooter, which he rides from his home on the Upper West Side to his office in Rockefeller Center. “It’s so amazingly convenient,” he says. “If I’m going out to lunch, I can fold it up, give it to the hatcheck lady, and she’ll take it. When I get out—boom, I’m gone.” He’s such a scooter evangelist that he recently bought one for a friend, who was somewhat less taken with it. “I tried to give him lessons, but the only real lesson is, put your gloves on. You’re going to have to fall a few times.”

Johnson has had his share of stumbles. He was born Robert Wood Johnson IV in 1947, the great-grandson of one of the founders of Johnson & Johnson. As a child, his future seemed preordained: “I thought for sure I was working for J&J,” he says. “I was going to be like my dad, and my grandfather, and get a chance to make Band-Aids, and pharmaceutical drugs, and cure cancer, and do all that kind of stuff.” But he never got the chance to work for, let alone run, his namesake company. In 1965, when Woody was still a teenager, his father, then president of Johnson & Johnson, lost his position after a feud with Woody’s grandfather. Five years later, both men were dead, Woody was in his early twenties, and his door into the family business was closed.

“People say we talk too much,” says Johnson. “Fine. Whatever. Good.”

For a time, he drifted. He moved to Florida and got into real estate. A business partner from the seventies described the young Woody to the Times as having a Fu Manchu mustache, “his zipper open, sandals on, and long straggly hair.” Still, Johnson did well in business, augmenting his considerable fortune with a successful cable company. In the early eighties, Johnson toyed with investing in an NFL franchise in Tampa but decided it was a bad fit. He poured his energy into fund-raising, both charitable and political, becoming a major rainmaker for Republican pals like George W. Bush. Bush, of course, is another heir apparent to a family dynasty who spent some years in the wilderness before taking up sports ownership; he was part-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team.

In 1999, when longtime Jets owner Leon Hess died, Johnson went to Hess’s funeral and he was impressed to see the whole team in attendance. When the Hess family put the team on the market, Johnson moved quickly. He was drawn to the Jets “as a chance to compete in a very competitive environment.” After all, New York is a bigger stage than Tampa, and winning a Super Bowl is a better way to make your name than padding your inherited fortune in the cable business.

At the time, observers placed the Jets’ value at roughly $250 million, but the bidding war soared higher—much higher. “I dropped out at $510 million because my brains overruled the seat of my pants,” real-estate mogul Sam Grossman said at the time. Ultimately, the bidding came down to two suitors: Johnson and Charles Dolan, another cable magnate and owner of Madison Square Garden, the Rangers, and the Knicks. Johnson put in a bid for $625 million, then bumped it by another $10 million at the deadline, an offer Dolan didn’t match. This price tag was the highest ever for a New York sports franchise, and the third-highest for an NFL team. A columnist predicted that Johnson would “probably be content to let the all-powerful head coach [Bill Parcells] steer the ship while he provides a conservative, stable port.” As for Johnson, he’s described the day he was approved for ownership as “a moment where I knew my life had changed, and the journey began.” He says now, “I was looking for something to give me the same feeling” that he had about Johnson & Johnson. “I think football does a pretty good job of it.”

At the beginning of 2000, the Jets franchise had three things going for it: (1) the legend of Super Bowl III in 1969, when Broadway Joe Namath guaranteed, then delivered, an upset win; (2) the marketing cachet of being a New York–based team, even though they played their home games in a stadium in New Jersey that was shared with, and named for, the rival Giants, and (3) Parcells, a revered coach who’d led the Jets to the brink of the Super Bowl a year before. But in early January 2000, Parcells retired. He was supposedly leaving the team in the able hands of his chosen heir, Bill Belichick. Then Belichick quit as well. He announced his departure by scribbling a note on a scrap of paper—“I resign as HC of the NYJ”—right before a press conference intended to introduce him as the new coach. In the midst of this turmoil, the NFL approved Johnson’s bid for the team.

Rex Ryan at the team's practice facility.Photo: Sarah A. Friedman

For the first years of his tenure, the team swung between moderate success and futility, putting up a winning season one year only to slide back to the basement the next. In 2006, after a 4-12 season, Johnson brought in a new coach, the 35-year-old Belichick protégé Eric Mangini. He was well regarded by football people, but his approach, like his mentor’s, was sour and rigid. He regarded the press as an enemy, and he was infamous among players for his sharp, and occasionally brutal, tirades. In an ESPN poll of players during this past off-season, Mangini—now with the Browns—was named the “Last Coach You’d Want to Play For” by a wide margin.

But Mangini was successful at first in New York, earning the nickname Mangenius. The next year, in 2007, his quarterback got hurt and the team sputtered once again—Same Old Jets. Fans dropped the Mangenius nickname and replaced it with “Manjackass” and, later, “Manboobs,” as though the portly coach were a sidekick on “The Howard Stern Show.”

Meanwhile, Johnson was fighting to free the Jets from the awkward fit of their adopted home. In 2005, Johnson threw his weight behind the initiative to build a West Side football stadium in Manhattan, which he envisioned as a grand new home for the Jets. But the bid, despite Mayor Bloomberg’s vigorous backing, was torpedoed by Sheldon Silver and Joseph Bruno. This was not only a disappointment for the team but a personal rebuke for Johnson: The primary private opponent to the stadium was none other than Charles Dolan, the man Johnson had outbid for Jets ownership. “In terms of the West Side stadium, that’s just business,” Johnson says now. “Some of it may have appeared personal. And maybe it felt personal at the time.” The stadium debacle left Johnson facing a faltering product on the field, a very public political defeat (who can forget all those grand renderings of the theoretical West Side Jets stadium?), and, not long after, an organization run by an increasingly unpopular coach. (“A miserable workplace” was one characterization—and that was in a positive ESPN profile of Mangini.)

So Johnson decided to focus on the things he could control. In 2008, the team opened a brand-new, $75 million, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill–designed Florham Park facility and headquarters, thus escaping their old practice facility at Hofstra, which reporters couldn’t help but point out was ringed with barbed wire. The new building is a gleaming white football temple, notable for its state-of-the-art equipment and attention to good health, per Johnson’s obsession. The cafeteria serves organic food and Purell hand-sanitizers dot the hallways. In the lobby, under glass, you’ll find the team’s lone Super Bowl trophy. It’s the one Namath once hoisted, and it’s conspicuous in its loneliness.

To try and add to that tally, the Jets’ front office, in 2008, led by G.M. Mike Tannenbaum, made a win-now gamble and traded for the retired, 38-year-old Brett Favre. Mangini didn’t want Favre, but he was overruled by Johnson and Tannenbaum. This shotgun marriage worked for a while, but then Favre broke down and the team faltered. After the season, Favre re-retired, and later bolted for the Vikings. And Johnson fired Mangini.

It’s ironic that a man who was born as the scion to a long-standing family business instead wound up in a job for which there’s no system of apprenticeship. As an NFL owner, you learn on the job. The Mangini mess proved Johnson was still learning. “It’s a complex business,” he says.

When people talk about Rex Ryan, they invariably call him “Rex” (except the players, at least to the press), and all this repetition—Rex Rex Rex—leaves the impression that he’s either a favorite dog or a reigning king. In a sense, he’s both. When Johnson flew to Baltimore to interview Ryan (Ryan was the Baltimore Ravens’ defensive coordinator), Ryan showed up 45 minutes late. Johnson wasn’t impressed. But by the end of Ryan’s interview, the position was his. “He blew us away,” says Johnson. “Seeing his personality, his sense of humor, the way he and I got along, it was kind of a done deal.”

Ryan is, in every way, the anti-Mangini: loose with the press, funny, well loved by his players, and fearless in doling out controversial quotes. The press roots for him to do well because it doesn’t want to see him leave. Ryan is seen as a football savant, at least on the defensive side of the ball: He took the Jets’ pass defense from 29th in the league to first. He’s also a coach that players want to play for. Bart Scott, Ryan’s star linebacker, says of Hard Knocks: “I heard from a lot of guys who saw that first episode and said they really wished they could work in an organization like that.”

All of this has rubbed off on Johnson. People close to Johnson say that Ryan better reflects his natural personality—and that Johnson bristled while married to Mangini—but Johnson says he’s learned from Ryan’s praise-God-and-pass-the-ammo approach. Which means he’s finally able to fully enjoy being Woody Johnson, Jets owner. He’s become a much more hands-on presence than in his early days. “It’s a special feeling when your owner seems concerned with your day-to-day life,” says Scott. “That’s when you get that special relationship, that Jerry Maguire–type relationship.” Mike Tannenbaum says of Johnson, “Players in camp from other teams say they’ve seen more of Woody here than they saw of their other owners in ten years.”

For a decade, the gold standard of NFL organizations has been Belichick’s Patriots: Grim, professional, businesslike. That approach was imported by Mangini. Now Johnson’s feeling is, to paraphrase his current coach: Fuck that. “There are some very tight teams that have done very well,” he says. “But our style is, we’re not afraid to make mistakes. If you’re afraid of your own shadow, or you’re afraid of saying the wrong word, or you’re afraid you’re going to embarrass yourself or your team, that’s not who I want to be. That’s not who Rex wants the team to be.”

Last season, Johnson’s new openness was tested in January when his 30-year-old daughter, Casey, died in Los Angeles. Casey, estranged from her father (Johnson, married twice, has five children), was a gossip-page fixture, a cohort of Paris Hilton, and the fiancée of the bisexual reality star Tila Tequila. Initial reports speculated she’d died of an overdose—she’d had trouble with drugs—but the coroner declared it complications due to her diabetes. Johnson discussed with his executives the matter of dealing with the press. He decided that, if his players were willing to take the field days after a tragedy (one player had, in fact, lost his father earlier in the season), he couldn’t close down himself. Talking to a Times reporter, Johnson said his daughter’s death made him feel like a failure as a parent and that he’d once hoped her move to California, away from the family, might help her find her way—as his youthful wanderings had helped him. The news of her death broke shortly before the Jets’ playoff game in Cincinnati and Johnson watched the game stoically from his box. After the win, Ryan gave Johnson the game ball. Johnson cried.

“New York fans don’t care if you make mistakes, if you’re authentic. Well, they don’t like too many mistakes.”

It would be incorrect to say that, in Ryan, Johnson has found a kindred spirit. Ryan is huge and boisterous, and Johnson, with his glasses, his ball cap, and his Jet-green ties, can seem tiny and stiff by comparison. If Ryan was the star of Hard Knocks, Johnson made awkward cameos. In one memorable scene, Ryan and Johnson are working out side by side on a pair of treadmills. Ryan laughs good-naturedly about his bulk; checking the monitor, he jokes, “Heart rate: 2,000.” Meanwhile, Johnson, the notorious health nut and sixteen years Ryan’s senior, breaks into a brisk jog.

Yet they’re strikingly close. In an effort to lose weight, Ryan had lap-band surgery in the off-season, “and who does the research about it? Woody does,” Ryan says. “He tells me, this is where you need to go. You know what I mean? He’s behind me 100 percent. Some guys wouldn’t be. They’d say, ‘This is an embarrassment to the organization or whatever.’ Not Woody. Woody cares about me.” When Ryan was getting criticized for his excessive profanity on Hard Knocks, Johnson pulled him aside and said, “I love it. Whatever you’re doing, do it again.” He admires Ryan’s attitude, his infectious approach, and his tough talk. “Rex announced before the season we were going to the Super Bowl,” he says. “He was very matter-of-fact. You’re not going to want to play us. This is going to be a tough mother of a team.”

In this sense, Ryan and Johnson are parallels: Both were raised in a family business (Ryan’s father, Buddy, is a legendary coach and was an assistant on the ’69 championship Jets), and both were steeped in the attendant expectations. Ryan, though, has had a chance to wear his mantle, and does so with admirable ease. When Johnson talks about Rex’s version of the Jets, it always comes back to identity: We’re confident. We’re authentic. We know who we are. It’s a philosophy Johnson’s bought into. In the midst of his sixth decade, he’s grown into his own skin and is having a blast. “People can tell a phony a mile off,” he explains. “And the New York media, the fans, they don’t like phonies. They don’t care if you make mistakes, if you’re authentic. They’ll let you make mistakes.” He thinks about it. “Well, they don’t like too many mistakes.”

After a recent practice, the Jets flow into the locker room, looking loose and joshing around: If they are not going to be world-beaters this year, then no one has told them yet. They’ve returned from Cortland and are back in their first-class digs in New Jersey. As the players change out of uniform, the press mills into the locker room, scanning for interviews, before inevitably coagulating around Mark Sanchez.

In Sanchez’s locker, there’s a Jet-green stickie note with a Namath quote—“What you should feel is that you’re better than anyone out there”—next to a bottle of Bed Head Control Freak hair gel, which his teammates kiddingly call his “Jheri-curl juice.” Sanchez is matinee-idol handsome and the obvious face of the franchise (the “Sanchize,” some have nicknamed him), and he stepped out a bit this past off-season, being linked in the gossip pages to Jamie-Lynn Sigler and showing up, looking dapper, at the Tonys. (That’s right—not the Espys, the Tonys.) He attended a boxing match in Vegas last spring, and other celebrities were jockeying to meet him.

Johnson lobbied for his G.M. to trade up in the 2008 draft to grab Sanchez with the team’s first-round pick, and, as with Ryan, Johnson’s enamored of the young QB’s comfort in his own skin. When they were considering Sanchez, Johnson and his coaches flew out to California to take him to dinner. “He’s talking to me and he’s so comfortable,” says Johnson, as though recalling a successful date. After the dinner, in the parking lot, Sanchez said his good-byes, then headed straight to a motorcycle and slung his leg over the saddle. The coaches and Johnson looked on aghast. No one wants their star quarterback traveling via motorbike. But it wasn’t his motorcycle. “Just kidding!” Sanchez said.

In the locker room, Sanchez handles the usual football questions with the usual measured answers. He’s getting better at this part, at least. There is enormous pressure on him this season; last year, he came in as a highly touted rookie, but with little expectation of immediate success. This year, it’s Super Bowl or bust. And most observers agree that if it’s bust, it’s Sanchez who will bear the blame. Last year, he had several terrible games, including one in which he threw five interceptions. But in the playoffs, he blossomed, running a tight, disciplined, if conservative, offense. This seemed promising—except that, this preseason, the offense has skidded again. There is not much margin for error this year, as the team opens with a tough schedule. The Jets meet the Ravens (Ryan’s old team) in a Week One Monday-night game. Next up: Belichick’s squad. “You better believe the Patriots have that circled” on the schedule, says Rodney Harrison, an ex-Patriot.

Simply put, given their schedule, the team the whole world is talking about could easily start the season 1 and 4. The Football Outsiders Almanac, an annual breakdown of football statistics, projects the Jets will win ten games this season, which should be good enough to make the playoffs. After that, who knows? As the Almanac points out, the 2009 Jets were aided by unusual good fortune. In the Jets’ two upset playoff wins, opposing placekickers missed five straight field goals—the odds of which the Almanac calculates at 5,292 to 1.

Last year, the Jets proved everyone wrong. This season they have to prove everyone right. At the end of the question session, one reporter tells Sanchez that a game photo of him and center Nick Mangold will appear that week on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The young quarterback considers this, seemingly not quite sure how to react. Then he flashes his surfer’s smile, nods his head, and says simply, “Really? That’s cool for Nick. Cool. Cool.” It’s the only way he can answer, really. He knows he’s supposed to earn the spotlight, yet the spotlight is already his. Now he’s got to prove he belongs there. In that way, he’s the embodiment of the Jets.

Woody and the Jets